Zelenskyy’s Mariupol Speech on Donbas Hints at Forthcoming Strategy

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 152

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivering remarks in Mariupol, Ukraine, October 31 (Source: UATV)

Addressing a forum in Mariupol (port city in the Ukrainian-controlled part of the Donetsk province) on October 31, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy outlined an upcoming “state strategy for the reintegration of Donbas and Crimea” into Ukraine. The dual-purpose forum included a conference for international and Ukrainian investors as well as a “unity forum” for dialogue between the government and civil society.

Zelenskyy’s speech may, at best, be taken as an introduction to a forthcoming strategy for reintegration of the occupied territories. Comprised of broad generalities, this introduction enumerates four features that the strategy must necessarily entail: transparency, consensus, realism, and state capacity to apply the strategy in practice. Within these principles, the strategy must, of course, be balanced, pragmatic, and ready for certain compromises to attain its goals. Self-evidently, it must also combine “diplomacy, information and humanitarian policies, as these cannot exist separately from each other.” In sum, “Ukraine needs peace, but a peace on our terms.” The ultimate objective is “to end the war and get all of Ukraine’s territories back” (President.gov.ua, accessed October 30).

For an even broader, methodological framework, Zelenskyy’s speech invokes the “international experience of armed conflicts and wars anywhere on the globe, showing the way to end the war and bring peace in three indispensable stages”: stop the fighting irreversibly, promote reconciliation, and achieve reintegration “not merely on paper.” Ukraine is about to achieve the first stage and will then embark on the next two stages, Zelenskyy stated (Ukrinform, October 30).

The published text contains just one brief reference to “Russian aggression” in a subordinate clause of the speech; one passing mention of international economic sanctions as reinforcement to Ukrainian diplomacy; no reference to the Minsk “agreements,” although Zelenskyy does embrace the “Normandy” format and Minsk Contact Group negotiations again in this speech; and no mention of Russia’s moves to suffocate the port of Mariupol—host city of this forum—by illegally restricting access to and from the port via the Kerch Strait (see EDM, September 6, 2017, February 22, 2018, April 12, 2018, June 11, 2018).

Six months into Zelenskyy’s presidency, his Mariupol address fits the pattern of his election campaign speeches: florid in style, nonspecific in content, and improvised without discernible input from policy experts. While a strategy to reintegrate the Russian-occupied Donbas is (as the president suggests) being worked out by his administration, two of Zelenskyy’s show-business partners have been appointed to the National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) as advisors for Donbas reintegration: Maksym Tkachenko, long-time producer and general manager of the Kvartal-Concert company (subsidiary of Zelenskyy’s Kvartal 95 entertainment conglomerate), and Serhiy Sivoho, a veteran actor and singer in Kvartal 95 comedy shows. Tkachenko and Sivoho are Kyiv-based natives of the Luhansk province, and so is the NSDC’s newly appointed chief official, Oleksiy Danilov, whose IT company provided services to Zelenskyy’s election campaign (Babel Magazine, August 2019; Ukrinform, October 21, 22, 23).

Zelenskyy’s Mariupol speech seems to be a reaction to criticism from mass media and civil society over the president’s acceptance of the “Steinmeier Formula” per Moscow’s demand and his unrequited eagerness to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The criticism focuses on Zelenskyy’s lack of a concept on how to “end the war” and “bring peace” (see EDM, September 17, 24, 25, 26, October 3, 10, 16, 17, 21). In the week prior to the Mariupol speech, the pullback of Ukrainian troops from one frontline outpost and scheduled pullback from another outpost (again as preconditions to a Putin-Zelenskyy meeting) highlighted anew the absence of a strategic concept amid Zelenskyy’s tactical, reactive moves.

Without acknowledging those criticisms in the Mariupol speech, Zelenskyy attempted to address them obliquely by suggesting that a Donbas reintegration strategy is being worked out. The effort fell short of this goal, as did the president’s October 10 press marathon (see EDM, October 16, 17), and for the same reasons: lack of specifics, absence of inputs from policy experts, and the president’s unfamiliarity with the dossiers of issues that he attempted to address. Zelenskyy indicated that a strategy will shortly be unveiled for public debate. This last point is not only a characteristically Zelenskyy populist touch but also a defensive gesture toward criticism from the active core of civil society.

Partly as a result of that backlash, the Ukrainian delegation in the Minsk Contact Group has unexpectedly reverted to positions it had defended during Petro Poroshenko’s presidency, in line with Ukraine’s national interests. In the Minsk Group’s regular fortnightly sessions on October 15 and October 29, Kyiv’s delegation, led by former president Leonid Kuchma, called for the dissolution of the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” (DPR, LPR), disbandment of their militaries, and Ukrainian access to the DPR/LPR-controlled stretch of the Ukraine-Russia border, as part of a set of prerequisites to any local elections in that territory (Ukrinform, October 15, 29).

The explicit call for the DPR/LPR’s dissolution goes beyond Kyiv’s Poroshenko-era defense. It challenges the structure and process of the Minsk Contact Group as such, where the two “people’s republics” are parties to the negotiations, opposite the Ukrainian government. On October 1, the DRR/LPR became co-signatories with Ukraine to the Steinmeier Formula and their tripartite pledge to implement that “formula” into Ukraine’s legislation. Kuchma signed that document for Ukraine at Zelenskyy’s direction. The volte-face on October 15 and 29 looks like an attempt to escape from the trap, or at least a gesture for public consumption in Kyiv (as the president’s October 10 press marathon and October 30 Mariupol speech).

At the same time, President Zelenskyy and his foreign affairs minister, Vadym Prystaiko, insist that they are duly fulfilling Russia’s preconditions to the holding of a “Normandy” group summit (Russia, Germany, France, Ukraine) and a Putin-Zelenskyy meeting within that quadripartite summit (Ukrinform, October 30, 31). Meanwhile, Russia is stringing the Ukrainian president along to a summit on Kremlin-defined terms.